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|Articles - October 2010|
|Tuesday, September 28, 2010|
It was a classic dotcom deal. ISITE Design co-founders Paul Williams and Jeff Cram were on the 70th floor of the Trump Building on Wall Street in 2000, entertaining a tempting offer from an investment firm pushing a reverse merger with a publicly traded company. Everything was first class, including the meal cooked by the chef flown in from Italy to celebrate the birthday of one of the firm’s partners.
Williams and Cram, who met as Linfield College fraternity brothers with a shared love for baseball, were star-struck by the experience. But they didn’t like the fine print, the part where they would lose control of the company they had built.
“We got our offer and took a walk around the block,” recalls Williams, “and we decided it just didn’t feel like us or what we want to do. If we can’t understand this, we’re not going to do it.”
That decision kept Williams and Cram out of the full-tilt expansion party that characterized the Internet boom years. It also allowed them to survive the inevitable crash and maintain control as their peers and competitors went down in flames. In the decade since, they have built ISITE into a Portland company that powered through the recession without eliminating jobs and now is hiring to keep up with demand for website design as well as high-level digital strategy consulting. Williams is forecasting revenues of $6.5 million to $7 million for 2010.
“A lot of large agencies had to cut people during the recession because their forecasts didn’t show the right numbers,” says Williams, the 35-year-old CEO who works out of ISITE’s headquarters in Portland’s Old Town. “So they lost good people and we were able to pick up good people.”
ISITE more than tripled its revenues from 2005 to 2009, while growing from 14 employees to 53. The company is expecting growth to accelerate as companies continue to seek insight into how to make the most of the Internet to improve everything from e-commerce to marketing to analytics. Strategic consulting with global companies such as Siemens and SolarWorld is increasingly important to ISITE, generating about 20% of the firm’s business and growing.
“We’re coming into large organizations more as a management consultant than a website designer,” says Cram, the 34-year-old chief strategy officer who works out of ISITE’s office in Cambridge, Mass. “We’re helping them figure out how technology is going to change their business, or enable them to change. It’s a very different conversation compared to what we were having four or five years ago. And more organizations are figuring out that they need this.”
This growing portion of the business can become complex quickly. ISITE’s work for Siemens involves websites in 28 countries and in eight languages.
That’s quite a journey for a McMinnville startup that nabbed its first paying client worth $5,000 after someone found an ISITE business card lying on the floor. Williams and Cram had just graduated from Linfield with degrees in communications and were working for the McMinnville News-Register at a time when newspapers and their advertisers first began confronting the enormous potential and challenge of the worldwide web. They recognized the opportunity within the disruption, and so did the team of 45 or so developers they recruited from local colleges in the low-budget days before they were able to hire people.
Before long they had an office and "real" employees. They rode the Internet wave but not foolishly, building relationships with local business leaders such as the Tonkin family, with whom they built a whole new way of selling cars that eventually became a stand-alone company called DealerPeak. They resisted the temptation to move jobs overseas to save money, opening an office instead in the Cambridge Innovation Center near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 14-story building packed with businesses studying everything from using algae as a biofuel to the latest in video game graphics. MIT is now a key ISITE client, as is Boston-based Zipcar.
Cram oversees just six employees in Cambridge, but he expects that number to grow. The same trend applies at the stylish Old Town office, where ISITE is hiring developers, project managers, marketing managers and strategists.
“We get hundreds of applications for entry-level positions, but for senior-level strategists we have to go out hunting,” says Williams. “These aren’t people who are sitting around unemployed. Digital strategy is an area that is taking off.”
It’s a subject Williams and Cram have been studying since their early startup days. “We’ve had digital strategy in our DNA from the start, but it takes a while to develop to that level,” says Williams. “Now people are bringing us in as an extension of their team and looking to us to help them chart their future.”
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